I have a confession to make: Erin and I are addicted to ruins. We love the tumbledown stone that girds remote mountaintops. We love battle sites of long forgotten history. We get a thrill over hiking impossibly high and then collapsing on the walls of some ancient fortress. It's not a serious condition. Just an itch that every once in a while needs scratching. And when it does, there isn't anything for it but to go haring off into the middle of nowhere and huff and puff our way up something rocky. Which is why on a misty day in January, we set out to see something old. Our destination was Samnyeong Sanseong.
The name means "three years mountain fortress," largely because it took three years to build. It dates from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history, around 470 AD. It's between 1680 and 1880 meters around (depending on who's doing the measuring) winding among the craggy hills east of the city of Boeun. It's been registered by the South Korean government for consideration as a UNESCO world heritage site, and it commands an impressive view of the surrounding valleys.
The fortress's historical significance is two-fold. One, the walls were built using a style of interlocking stones in horizontal and vertical layers that created significant strength. They were between thirteen and twenty feet high, and incorporated ramparts of earth and extensive bastions, battlements, and defensive fortifications. All in all, quite the impregnable powerhouse. Additionally, the fortress played a pivotal role in uniting Korea under the Silla kings. It helped secure control over the Han river valley, and was in active use for well over five hundred years.
We climbed to the site and walked the trail along the inner wall, up and down, along crumbling wooden steps, over patches of ice and snow. We weren't quite alone. The fortress seemed to be popular among locals out for a stroll.
But it was a beautiful spot. Samnyeong Sanseong is undergoing some renovations, so patches of wall looked suspiciously new. The stone forms a fence along the peaks surrounding the inner bowl of a valley. The center cradles a small Buddhist temple. The walls are broken by the occasional gate, with helpful signs in Korean and English to explain some of the history.
We spent about two and a half hours stomping around the ruins. We couldn't climb out onto the walls themselves, but there were plenty of lookouts with outstanding views to enjoy. It was cold and grey and misty, but it was also beautiful.
How to get there... Samnyeong Sanseong is a 2 kilometer walk from the bus depot in Boeun-Eup. It's a pretty straightforward trip, and as long as you set out in a roughly easterly direction, there are plenty of brown historical landmark signs to guide you. Here's a map of the location.
The bus depot is just west of the river. There aren't many direct buses to Boeun, however. If you live in Seoul, the Dong Seoul terminal will have the most routes. Otherwise, if you live outside Seoul, your best bet is to take a bus to Cheongju, the capital of the province. From there, you can catch buses every twenty minutes or so to Boeun. The ride from Cheongju takes between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on whether you get an express or a more meandering route.
If you're driving, there is a narrow road running all the way up to the fortress, and there does appear to be limited parking along the road just before you head up the mountain.